'Slavery by another name': How cold case technology is helping researchers identify Sugar Land 95

SUGAR LAND, Texas (KTRK) -- Three years after a gruesome discovery in Sugar Land, DNA researchers say they're closer than ever to identifying the 95 people found in an unmarked prison cemetery while crews were building a school.

The school district is now offering African American Studies classes for the first time ever, and students are learning the brutal history of Texas' convict leasing system.

But with the 94 men and one woman still unidentified, many wonder if the Sugar Land 95 will ever gain the respect they deserve.

"You know, we were free, but not free, free, free," said Beverley Vann-Colter, who is 72 years old.

Her family was enslaved just five generations ago.

"It was a cotton field back up to [Highway 90], and we would have to walk from here on our way up to 90 to catch the bus to go to school because, back in the day, it was a school for colored," she explained. "You couldn't go to the same schools. You can't eat in the same restaurant. You couldn't go to the same bathroom. You couldn't drink at the same water. You know, it was ... it made you feel real bad."

In those days, everybody heard rumors, but you didn't ask what you weren't sure you wanted to know.

"My grandparents used to sit out and they used to just talk about how the prisoners was being treated over there," Vann-Colter said. "Why? Why were they treated like that? Everybody is a human being. So it was like that. They were treating them like, still, like they were still in slavery."

It's only now, long after her grandparents have died, that Vann-Colter is learning the truth about the place she grew up, which was once known as the "Hellhole on the Brazos."

It was February 19, 2018.

Crews with the Fort Bend Independent School District were building a new school, digging deep into the soil, when they hit something that looked like bone.

"Our first concern was understanding if this was a criminal site," explained Veronica Sopher, a spokesperson for the district. "Maybe we call the police for the police to come and investigate."

After ruling out a criminal site, or an animal burial site, archeologists thought they had uncovered a prehistoric cemetery. But the deeper they dug, the less likely that seemed.

"We dug straight down, and what we came upon were no more prehistoric artifacts," explained archeological project manager Reign Clark. "What we came upon was a single individual laid out on their back. They were all male. At that point, they were all adult, and we started thinking, 'What are we looking at here?' Every one of them were African American. We started thinking that more than likely what, we were seeing was a cemetery that predated the state-run state sanctioned prison farm."

According to bio-archeologist Dr. Catrina Banks-Whitley, several individuals had gunshot wounds that they had prior to their death.

"We were also able to notice and determine that there were individuals dying from gunshot wounds here at the site and another individual had their arm crushed," she said.

Reginald Moore wasn't surprised.

The former longshoreman and prison guard had spent the last 20 years studying the prison system.

He knew inmates had been buried somewhere nearby, and Reginald was a man who did not give up, in life or in love.

"He got on my nerves, then I felt bad for him," laughed Marilyn Moore, his wife of more than 20 years. "Anyway, that's how we met."

Reginald ultimately got the girl and started a mission.

"I don't know if it was spiritual that he just knew that those bodies were there, but he knew that there were bodies out there somewhere," Moore explained. "Somehow or another, he knew that there were bodies on that site."

Reginald spoke at every city council meeting and every school board meeting. When construction crews hit bones in 2018, they knew who to call.

He had demanded oversight from the Texas Historical Commission and had already spoken to each individual worker about what he believed was hidden under their construction site.

"It got to the point where I guess people hated to see his number pop up," his wife said. "He's someone who doesn't back down. If he believes something, whether it's right wrong or indifferent, he doesn't pull back ... unless he is totally convinced otherwise. Everybody wants to say, 'I'm from Sugar Land,' but what happened in Sugar Land is they're trying to keep that under cover, how Sugar Land grew to be, [and] what Sugar Land is today."

To understand what Reginald was talking about, you have to go back to the mid-1800s, when sugarcane was first planted in Fort Bend County.

The climate was perfect for it, but by the time Texas became a state in 1845, there were more enslaved people in the area than free people.

The sugar industry was flourishing.

The Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863, but enslaved people in Texas only learned about it two years later, on a day now known as Juneteenth.

Even then, the semblance of freedom didn't last long.

In 1867, the convict leasing program began in the state of Texas and it remained in place until 1910.

"The 13th amendment says that slavery, nor involuntary servitude, is allowed in the United States except as a punishment of a crime," said Chassidy Olainu-Alade, Fort Bend ISD's coordinator of community and civic engagement. "So it was that small clause that southern states really got as a window and saw as a loophole in the abolition of slavery. And so with that, states across the south, including Texas, started to use the practice of using convicts to perform the agricultural labor, or the labor used to rebuild infrastructure, throughout the south."

She said about 60% of the convicts were Black and 29% were white, with the remaining percentage made up of Hispanic and Native people.

The crimes were often minor, but carried long sentences.

"Then we have the Black codes, which vagrancy was one of the main statutes that we see individuals being arrested and convicted of," said Olainu-Alade. "So, as an individual, you live part of your life as an enslaved person. Now, you're no longer enslaved, but you're being penalized for not working on the, in many cases, the very same property in which you were working on as an enslaved person. The Texas state prison system was incentivized to incarcerate, convict, arrest individuals, and sentence them. Then, the Texas state penitentiary would then determine where they would be sent. We see in our archives that there are contracts put out for workforces that are particularly assigned to race."

The strongest Black men were sent to Sugar Land, because harvesting sugar was considered to be the most exhausting and dangerous type of farming.

"Under the system of slavery, a slave was considered an asset. So an owner would acquire a slave and then be compelled to provide for them, to nurture them, to provide them with shoes and clothing and medical attention should they fall ill," Olainu-Alade said. "Whereas during this system of convict labor, the workforce was replenished a lot easier than under the system of enslavement because the overhead was so low. We know that Ellis and Cunningham paid $3 and one cent per month per convict to the state of Texas. So, in the event one person fell ill or passed away while on the camp, it was very ... easy to replace that workforce."

Prisoners worked up to 20 hours a day.

"This is a marginalized group in Sugar Land, Texas, that if we can identify, we can affect hundreds of thousands of people's understanding where they came from," Clark said, explaining that he and others used coffin nails to identify the time span of the burials. "Our individuals that we found in the archives dated from 1879 to 1909. So that span of time is exactly right for the changeover and nail technology."

Artifacts show the brutality they endured.

There are chains and farming tools that show the prisoners worked in chain gangs.

But there's also a reminder that these were people with hobbies and families whose final resting places have been ignored.

"What these artifacts speak to is the hundred years of disturbance," he explained.

School construction was delayed in 2018 as archeologists uncovered more and more graves.

At first, district officials wanted to move them to a nearby prison cemetery, but they abandoned those plans when protestors, including Reginald, demanded they be reinterred where they were found.

The man who had fought so fiercely for the bones to be uncovered was now fiercely fighting, through demonstrations and lawsuits, for them to be treated with respect.

In 2020, Reginald died from congestive heart failure. He was 60 years old.

Like that of his fellow Yates High School alum, George Floyd, Reginald Moore's life is, in so many ways, now remembered as an idea that dignity is worth fighting for.

A county park near his home has been named in his honor.

"Even up to his last days, he was checking ... had me calling somebody to check on something that he was working on. So there was always work to do," his wife explained. "I don't know what he would consider his legacy, but what I consider his legacy is the tenacity to push things forward ... to not give up. Even to his own detriment."

The bodies Reginald worked to honor have now been studied, catalogued, and placed back where they were found.

The grounds have been officially named the Bullhead Camp Cemetery after a creek some historians say ran through the area.

The school behind it is filled with students, but the story of those who lived here is still hidden.

"Seeing that the buckshot pellets actually fit back into the wounds was something that was surprising and heartbreaking all at the same time," said Banks-Whitley. "You're handling their bones, you're looking at their teeth and you're learning about their life, and it really is a very humbling experience with that."

This is now only the first convict labor camp cemetery to be excavated and analyzed, but it's also the largest population studied in Texas history that includes both people born into slavery and after.

Everybody recovered was malnourished.

"There were almost two segments in the cemetery of individuals. So when we started from one side that we think might be the oldest section of the cemetery, they had muscle changes and bone changes, consistent with someone that was doing very heavy physical labor from a very young age," said Banks-Whitley. "As we got to the other side of the cemetery, that we're thinking is later, we did have those changes where these individuals were not necessarily doing very heavy labor from the time they were small, but you could see they had those pools indicating that they had been forced into heavy labor. Even the size of the bones were very, very different."

The poorly made coffins provided little protection.

The bones were mostly preserved by the sediment around them.

"In the Christian burial practices, you put somebody with their head to their west and the feet to the east," said Banks-Whitley. "There were a number of individuals that actually were buried the wrong way. So there was no real care on which way they would place people into the ground whenever they would bury them. So they were just turned all kinds of different directions. We also were able to see that in several cases, the prison system just left individuals in their coffins and did not bury them for quite a while. We also had one other coffin, which is a complete mystery as to what happened, but it was empty and no one was actually in that coffin. So that is just a great mystery as to, you know, was the prison trying to hide the fact that a prisoner got away? Or were the other prisoners trying to hide the fact that the prisoner got away? Right now, we really don't know who was forced to bury these individuals."

Ninety-four of the bodies were male and one is believed to be female. But who are they? Why wasn't anybody ever notified about their deaths?

"Nobody cared about them. That's the reason it wasn't recorded," explained Sandra Rogers, a retired curator at the Texas Prison Museum. "They were there for a purpose ... to make the state money."

Rogers has spent many years going through old prison records.

When a person was convicted of a crime, their information was entered into a state prison system database.

"They were asked everything about them from their age, their weight, any kinds of scars, wounds," Rogers explained.

The notes on how the prisoners could be used for labor are eerily detailed, but their burials weren't considered important enough to be recorded.

But eventually, Rogers was able to make a list of 74 names. Seventy-one inmates were sent to the Bullhead Convict Leasing Camp and died there between 1879 and 1909.

There were men who weren't prisoners, but died at the camp during the same years.

"The list is basically circumstantial evidence," said Clark. "If you have an individual that has a scar on their left thumb, and we have some sort of morphology on one individual among 95 that we studied that has that one little irregularity, that's circumstantial evidence. We can't say for certain."

You can see why each prisoner was arrested - mostly theft and burglary charges - and how they died, which was mostly of some sort of disease.

Several died from sun stroke and others were shot while trying to escape.

The median age of those we know died there was 24. The youngest was a 16-year-old serving four years for theft.

The median sentence length was five years, but more than half of the prisoners who died there did so within a year of arriving - 78% died within two years.

"For African Americans doing their genealogical work, working back, you'll find that slavery is a wall to that because families were splintered. They were torn apart during slavery," Clark explained. "People were sold off, away from their children. There's not very good records on where people went, and a lot of times, last names changed [and] names changed when the individuals were sold."

For many families, the convict leasing system was another wall. It was a place where a two-year sentence could easily become a death sentence.

"We were given the authorization to collect small samples from each individual to curate for future study," Clark said. "When you have an individual that is recovered from an archeological context, an unmarked grave, a clandestine grave, and you're able to do genetic assay and then make a connection to a living descendant, you're creating a data point that [dates] six, seven, eight generations back. And what that does is that single data point can affect 16 to 19,000 people living today."

Researchers are processing the DNA now using new techniques.

If the 94 men and one woman would have been discovered even 10 years ago, scientists wouldn't have had the technology to identify them.

"I think there's a reason why it occurred in this era, in this age, in this day and age," Clark said. "You might have noticed some pretty major cold cases that have been solved recently in the last few years, including the Golden State Killer. Well, that same technology and people's interest in genealogy and people interested in their own genetic makeup, and advancements in genomics technology, will allow us to identify a certain percentage of the individuals that are buried there. What we can do is we can do ancient DNA extraction. We will be able to compare each of our individuals to individuals from a living record. If we make a match, we can then do genealogical research from that match straight back to identify how that person's related. We can identify which of the folks on our list is that one person. That way, we not only are able to tell a living descendant what happened to their relative, their ancestor, but in addition, also give those men back their names."

Laboratory director Abigail Fisher echoes that sentiment.

"I'm from a Jewish upbringing, and so we know we have stories," she said. "We have family who've lost and history that's been lost in returning a voice to people who've lost their voice and being able to investigate individuals from the historic books and accounts all the way to finding out, you know, how their muscles responded to surprise labor. It's an honor to work for this."

Researchers like Fisher have founded their own company called Principal Research Group dedicated to identifying the Sugar Land 95.

"I see them now as individuals, and before you just ... you didn't know," said field technician Kathleen Hughes. "They didn't have a voice, they didn't have a name and now they do."

"A lot of people think, 'Well, slavery was a long time ago.' We're talking about 160 years of water under the bridge, but there have been some pretty severe institutional systems in place to keep African Americans in a subservient role in society in this country," Clark said. "This is proof. This is archeological and historical proof of this occurring."

The group was awarded a 10-year permit to conduct genetic and chemical analysis of the remains along with geological work from results of genetic studies and public outreach.

"[The work is] not only notify next of kin, not only bring interested parties [or] interested people that think they may have a connection forward to offer up a DNA sample so that we can compare to our group, but also to educate."

If you live in Sugar Land, you've seen the fields. You probably drive past the old sugar mill every day, but you've most likely never heard of convict leasing.

"I went to the textbook warehouse and I pulled our Texas history and U.S. history textbooks, and I opened to the time period where this should have occurred in all of those collections. There was no mentioning of the convict leasing system in any of those books," Olainu-Alade said. "I always live by the African proverb of Sankofa where you don't know where you're going unless you know where you came from."

It was an idea Reginald had fought for: an African American Studies class where students would, for the first time, learn about the brutal system that not just shaped their home, but continues to shape it.

This year, it finally became a reality.

It's taking place at Kempner High School and it's named after the man who ended up buying the labor camp just before the state's convict leasing program was formally outlawed.

Isaac Kempner turned it into Imperial Sugar and established Sugar Land as a company town with paid employees.

In this city of contradictions, perhaps it makes sense that it's his namesake now holding the first African American studies class in the state.

"I feel like I never really got an in-depth type of learning when it came to like specifics," explained 17-year-old Michael Nneji.

"We'd always talk about, like, the basis, like Michael said. Slavery, segregation, [Martin Luther King, Jr.], Malcolm X, things like that," added 17-year-old Crystal Ebo. "But I always knew that there was something more, like, there's something that we're not covering."

Their teacher, Donte Clark, is learning, too.

He's teaching this elective class as a discussion group.

"It's kind of shocking because I didn't learn about any of this in history," the Fort Bend ISD alum explained. "You don't necessarily think of, you know, racial injustice or slavery, or when it comes to Sugar Land, and because it is such a wonderful area and, you know, it's progressed and it's really a melting pot, but when you do find out that these things were happening and it was so close, it really, for me, it really sparked my interest. [It] made me want to go more in depth ... learn more."

Convict leasing and the Sugar Land 95 discovery has also been added to U.S. History for Fort Bend ISD students starting in the 4th grade.

A brutal system hidden for so long is slowly being revealed.

"We live in Fort bend ISD, which is one of the most diverse districts in the entire country," explained 16-year-old Shalina Effendi. "So if we want to interact with people in a way that we will understand their past, or we'll understand why they are the way they are, or what events have led to the social and political and cultural fabric to be the way that it is today in our society."

"I don't feel like a lot of people, my skin color, understand how important our culture is," added 17-year-old Ron Mitchell. "Like, I feel like they don't get, like, the right knowledge that they need."

"I really just want them to be advocates ... advocates of the truth, advocates of history," Clark said. "Taking what we've learned here and the discussions that we have, and really using it to enlighten or inform their classmates."

But three years after the discovery, it's hard to understand the legacy of the Sugar Land 95.

There's something there that feels like the beginning of a reckoning, but while the graves are still marked as "unknown," there's still no closure.

Family lines are still broken.

"[It] can be buried, buried anywhere," said Vann-Colter, shaking her head. "Like they was just trash."

For her, the connection is there, even if the bloodline isn't confirmed.

This child of slavery may never know the whole truth about her ancestors, but she's starting to learn the truth of the soil she was born and raised on.

"If you don't have a history, how could you go forward? The road was not easy. So they might think they got a good road now, but they don't know who all sacrificed to make that role for them," she said. "It's somebody's family. It's somebody's family, but you just don't know."

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